IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Showcasing Gauguin’s last works

Paris museum marks 100th anniversary of artist’s death

The show at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, which took more than four years to assemble, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the postimpressionist’s death and is being billed as the blockbuster art event of the season.

“Gauguin Tahiti” runs for 3½ months before traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will be on view from Feb. 29 through June 20, 2004. Reserve tickets for morning entry at the Grand Palais are already sold out, but visitors can still queue up for the afternoon and evening.

Gauguin’s highly prized “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” is the centerpiece of the show. The work is traveling outside the United States for the first time in 50 years; it was last seen in France in 1949 in a major exhibit that celebrated the centennial of Gauguin’s birth.

The painting, whose permanent home is the Boston museum, is a monumental work that Gauguin clearly recognized as his best. “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better,” he once wrote.

He completed the painting and then shipped it to Paris with nine smaller, related works for an exhibit in Paris in 1898. Curators for “Gauguin Tahiti” were able to gather eight of the nine works for a display reminiscent of the 1898 show. The ninth painting is owned by a private collector in South America who did not want to relinquish it for the show.

“These have been brought together literally from the corners of the world,” said George Shackelford, the exhibition’s lead curator along with Claire Freches-Thory. “No one has seen these paintings in the same room since 1898.”

On view at the Galeries Nationales are 150 paintings, prints, drawings, illustrated manuscripts, carvings and photographs. The art represents a period of frenetic creativity in the last years of Gauguin’s life as syphilis, depression and financial problems gnawed at his emotional and physical health.

Born in 1848, Gauguin grew up in Paris and in Peru and traveled as a merchant marine and in the military before returning to Paris, where he became a successful stockbroker, married and had five children. After the French stock market collapsed in 1883, he abandoned his job and family and devoted himself to his art.

The show opens with works created before his first trip to Tahiti in 1891 and demonstrates his search for a more primitive, expressive style. Among the highlights are two of his most important wood sculptures, “Be in Love and You Will Be Happy” from the Boston museum, and “Be Mysterious” from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The two are being shown together for the first time in decades.

It then moves on to works produced during his first stay in Tahiti, an artistic cataloguing of his reaction to the South Seas and the paradise he hoped to find. Included is his acclaimed “Hail Mary.”

The show progresses to works produced when he returned to Paris in 1893-1895 — a period critical to the development of his concept of Tahiti — and includes his illustrated book, “Noa Noa,” which, when it travels to Boston, will be shown outside France for the first time since 1927.

The show hits its peak with the dreamlike, colorful and chaotic “Where Do We Come From?” and closes with an elaborate door frame that Gauguin sculpted from redwood to decorate the entrance to his primitive hut on the remote South Sea island of Hiva Oa, where he spent the last three years of his life. He died in 1903 at 54 and is buried on the island.

Gauguin’s bold style is evident throughout: radically simple but lush landscapes; languorous Polynesian women; a flattened sense of space; and daring use of color, which he called “a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.”